Letters from Cuba, pt 3: Mango crisis averted

August 9, 2015

Dear Cam,

Remember how I said that I tried to buy a mango and had too much money and they wouldn’t sell me one because there was no way to make change for the bill I had (roughly equivalent to a 20 dollar bill)? Well, check this out. After I finished texting you today I went in search of mango. I was determined. I have been in Cuba for over a week now and have not yet bought a mango. This is not my style. But the produce markets have been intimidating, namely because there are two kinds of currency here, the Cuban Peso, and the Convertible Peso.  The Cuban Peso is for Cubans and the Convertible Peso (CUC) is for foreigners, although I think Cubans use CUC’s too. A CUC is 25 Cuban Pesos, and all the street vendors and fruit markets deal in Cuban Pesos. Cuban Pesos seem hard to acquire if you’re not a Cuban (although I may be wrong about this), and CUC’s come in such large denominations comparatively that using them in the markets is problematic. Confused yet? Yeah me too.  Hence not yet purchasing a mango. I tried yesterday but it didn’t work out. See, if a mango costs 8 Cuban Pesos and I hand someone a 20 CUC note, they laugh in my face because I am asking them to give me 492 Cuban Pesos in change, which is probably about how much money they make in a month. This is when tears stream down my face as I walk away with my stomach grumbling, and pound my fist on the wall while wondering why eating is so inanely complicated in this country.

Anyway, today I was ready. I had Cuban Pesos. I had small CUC bills and some coins. I walked through the streets of Havana searching for a mango seller. It was Sunday afternoon and the markets had already closed for the day so my only hope was to find a lone person with a cart full of mangos.  I spotted one man squatting in the shade behind his cart and felt a spark of excitement as I sighted his offering of green spherical mounds of deliciousness. I approached him with intensity, only to see as I got closer that he had a cart full of avocados the size of my head, not a cart full of mangos the size of my head. Darn.

I kept walking, and finally I found them. Around the corner to my left there they were. Dozens of them. A mango oasis. I walked up to the vendor and cheered excitedly “Mangos!”, raising my fists above my head. He probably thought I was crazy but was happy to have a customer.  I handed him a 1 CUC coin, thinking that I was being smart and he would give me change, but no, not in Cuba. For 1 CUC he piled 4 cranium sized mangos in my arms. I asked if he had a bag….

As he held open the bag and I dropped the mangos in one by one, he asked me where I was staying and how much I was paying. I told him at a hostel near by and that I was paying 12 CUCs per night. He shook his head and said that he had a whole apartment that I could rent for 10 CUCs a night with breakfast included. “Do you want to see it?” I shrugged, “Sure.” Earlier that day I had been thinking that I might like to move to a different hostel, so I was willing to give it a look.

The man lead me to his flat, where I met his father who was a kind and smiling stalky shirtless man in his 70’s, sitting in a wicker chair watching television, not unlike fathers in the US do. The father told us that there was still a tenant in the apartment upstairs, but they were expected to leave soon so if I waited for a half hour I would be able to see the place. They made me sit down and relax, “Tranquilo, tranquilo!” I didn’t really want to wait around for a half an hour because I was starving and this wasn’t really how I had planned to spend my day. Although, I hadn’t actually planned my day, so what did it matter?? Anyway, I started telling them how goddamn much I love fruit and the father asked me if I wanted to eat some mango right then, and I was like “Uh yeah, sure.”

“Mango frio,” he said, and walked out of the room.

Minutes later he came back with a plate piled full of mango in one hand, and a fork and knife in the other. This, my dear Cam, is the moment when I learned one of the greatest pleasures in life: Mango Frio. Cold juicy mango from the fridge, on a hot ass humid as hell august in Havana sweating balls kind of day. Christ. The first bite I took made my whole body sigh. COLD MANGO.

The son left to attend to his fruit cart, and I was alone with dad.

Then it happened. Dad asked me where I was from. This is always a fun moment in Cuba. The second I say “los estados unidos” the looks on peoples faces range from astonishment, to shock, surprise, excitement, or simply a blank stare. My favorite is when the person I tell turns to every one around them, points at me and announce loudly “America!,” while I smile through my teeth and wave at the onlookers. I have started to really enjoy saying those words.

So I said it, “Los estados unidos.”

“AMERICA!” exclaimed dad.

“Yes!” I said!

He shook his head and looked at his hands, then back at me.

“This is the first time that an American has eaten mango in my kitchen,” he said in disbelief.

I laughed and ate the whole freaking mango and when I tried to pay him for it he refused and said that I was a Cubana now and his friend.

I never did look at the apartment and I doubt that I will stay there, but I feel pretty good about helping to repair the relationship with Cuba through my love of fruit.

What hilarity that I went from a severe mango drought to having four in a sack, and one in my belly. It’s just what I was saying earlier about either having no food or more than I can eat.  I can’t find my equilibrium in this place.

When I returned to the apartment where I’m staying I put all the mangos in the fridge so that I could have mango frio later, then the owner of the apartment pushed a bowl of almond flavored ice cream into my hands, which my vegan ass ate just to be polite. It was delicious. Almond ice cream. I recommend it.  Also, mango frio is the mother fucking shit, and you need to experience that as soon as possible. Good lord.

The place where I’m staying right now belongs to a woman named Oleydis who has a little baby with big chubby cheeks. It’s usually just the two of them living here, but right now her dad, brother, and nephew are visiting. It’s mayhem. Her dad loves to talk to me and he goes on and on about the sugar cane factory in his town and about the embargo and the revolution. I hardly understand what he is saying but it’s good practice in listening. He’s also very concerned that I don’t eat meat and he can’t believe that I’m not sick all the time. Right after expressing his concern he told me what poor health he is in and how the doctors want him to lose weight and lower his blood pressure and I said “Stop eating meat.” He chuckled and nodded his head like “Yeah, I know.”

Anyway, yeah, I always feel better when talking to people. The connection is really nice and it helps me to understand the places where I am and therefore not be so scared.

People keep telling me about how hard life is here and how they can’t make enough money to get ahead and buy cars and support a family etc. Then I tell them that I have read that Cubans are the happiest people on earth and ask if they think it is true. They always say yes it’s true, and that they are very happy. They say that you only get one life and you need to enjoy it and that they have no other option but to be happy and laugh through this whole ridiculous situation that they are in. They make the choice to enjoy life. Or at least to have a good attitude.

I talked with my Mexican friend Austre about it and he concluded after a few days of observation, “The Cubans are very happy. I’m not sure why, but they are.” That make me bust out laughing.

I’m not sure what’s going on with the rampant happiness either, but maybe they want things like cars, but also know better than to believe that having those things will bring them happiness. They are still able to be happy but would prefer that life were a little easier? I don’t know. It’s interesting to me the difference between them and us, because we will find any way possible to be unhappy, no matter how easy life is. We are so determined. Or maybe our lives are much harder in actuality. I’m not sure. We have all these things, cars, power tools, internet at home, things that make us self sufficient but also isolate us from other people because we no longer work together or need help. Maybe what money buys is loneliness. But also, I’ve only been here for 10 days, so what the hell do I know? I’m no Cuba guru. Whatever. I’m rambling.

your eliza

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